Texas congressman looks to honor American slaves in new legislation

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, left, talks to Rep. John James, R-Mich., in the House chamber after the seventh round of voting for a new speaker as the House meets for the third day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) has introduced a slate of legislation that seeks to honor American slaves and their descendants.  

“At some point, they ought to have their descendants benefit from the injustice with justice, in the form of first making sure that their ancestors are respected for what they’ve done,” Green told The Hill. “I assure you … if Anglos suffered what Black people suffered in this country, they would be doing what I’m doing, and would have done it long ago to correct the injustice.” 

Green’s legislation, “The Conscience Agenda: Our Moral Imperative,” includes expanding Slavery Remembrance Day, posthumously awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to the American enslaved, removing Richard Russell’s name from the Russell Senate Office Building, enacting the Securities and Exchange Atonement Act and establishing the Department of Reconciliation. 

Green said this agenda is needed more than ever, coming as the country argues over what part of African American history can be taught in schools. 

Most recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) rejected a new Advanced Placement (AP) course for high school students on African American studies, saying  the content “is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” 

In response, the College Board will release an updated version of the course  

“At this moment in time, we have persons who are trying to rewrite history, persons who refuse to acknowledge the facts associated with our history,” said Green. “There are persons who don’t want the history of slavery, the atrocities that were perpetrated upon Black people, they don’t want that talk. We cannot allow history to be rewritten to the extent that it likely will be without our voices being raised.” 

Part of Green’s agenda is already in action.  

On Aug. 20, 2022, President Biden recognized Slavery Remembrance Day as “a day to reflect on the terrible toll of slavery, and on our nation’s profound ability to heal and emerge stronger.”  

That specific date was chosen because on Aug. 20, 1619, the first Africans were brought to Virginia on the slave ship, the White Lion.  

While Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the emancipation of Black people, Green said, Slavery Remembrance Day would involve a program that would be spread out in churches around the country to honor and remember those who lived and died in slavery. It would also be a day of reflection, Green added, when the U.S. would take time to condemn the act of enslavement. 

“There’s no emolument associated with it, but there is the benefit of knowing that you have been a part of correcting an injustice and what happened in this country in 1619 and then for centuries was a great injustice,” said Green.  

Posthumously awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to the American enslaved would be another way for Congress to honor the “foundational mothers and fathers” whose backs this country was built on, he added.  

The medal would be awarded to the Africans first brought to America on the White Lion and all their descendants.  

Posthumously awarding a Congressional Gold Medal isn’t unheard of – the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the honor, as were servicemen and women who died in Afghanistan. Most recently, Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley were awarded the honor.  

But, Green said, part of why it is so important to bestow this honor is because in 1956, Congress awarded the medal to Confederate soldiers. 

“We cannot revile the ancestors but revere the enslavers,” said Green. And that includes those who went on to join the United States government, like Sen. Richard Russell, he said. 

Russell (R-Ga.) served in the United States Senate from 1933 until 1971.  

As chair of the Southern Caucus, Russell was a staunch opponent of civil rights. He filibustered for six days to stop an anti-lynching bill from passing and, in 1964, voted against the Civil Rights Act. He was against integration, and he once declared America “a white man’s country.” 

Today, the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., is named after Russell, but Green refuses to enter that building in a one-man silent protest. His agenda calls for removing Russell’s name from the building and renaming it The Old Senate Office Building until a new name can be agreed upon. 

But Green’s agenda also calls for atonement, specifically in the form of a “racial equity audit” every two years.  

This audit would investigate the extent of a financial institution’s historical connections — direct or indirect — to slavery. For instance, during the 19th century, Citizens Bank and Canal Bank in Louisiana, part of JP Morgan today, accepted slaves as collateral for loans to Southern plantation owners. JPMorgan and Chase apologized for this involvement in 2005. 

Green’s plan would also create an office of reparations within the Treasury Department.  

Green is hoping to see movement on his agenda this Congress — but much of it is unlikely to pass. 

The House is now controlled by Republicans, who have a very different view on racial justice. In fact, a 2021 Pew Research Center survey found an “overwhelming” number of Republicans think little or nothing needs to be done to ensure equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race.  

Republicans are also more likely than Democrats to say the nation has made a lot of progress toward racial equality over the last 50 years. Only 6 percent of Republicans believe white people benefit from advantages that Black people do not have. 

Green said America has always needed racial justice. 

“Racial justice is needed because there’s been racial injustice,” said Green. “It was a great injustice to enslaved people and over the centuries, one segment of society has benefited from that injustice.” 

“It requires acknowledgement of what the enslaved peoples did to make America the great country that is,” Green added. “America didn’t get great by itself. It had free labor for centuries to give it a pretty good start.” 

Tags Al Green Al Green civil rights house House Democrats Richard Russell

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